During our military involvement in the Vietnam War, a large section of the Left supported those who refused to obey their military call up notices arguing that conscription for the war was immoral and that the law should therefore not be obeyed. They were quick to draw analogies with laws enacted in Nazi Germany. Many conservatives countered this argument on the somewhat sterile grounds that in a civil society, laws had to be obeyed.
However, obedience to all laws cannot be an absolute. The central principle for conservatives is the legitimacy of the law making process. In the case of conscription in Australia, the possibility of repeal was always open. In the case of Nazi Germany, laws discriminating against Jews reflected a fundamentally illegitimate system in which both due process and freedom to disagree had been abolished. The conservative case for civil disobedience and rebellion was not merely grounded on the idea that a particular law is bad but that the system that produces such a law is bad. But then, the gulf between liberal democracies and totalitarian systems is obvious enough.
The embrace of political correctness has worrying implications for free speech in our democracy. We have so-called anti-discrimination laws at both Federal and State levels, laws governing hate speech, proposed new Federal Government laws concerning giving offense and proposals for control of the commercial media. I will not reiterate the details of proposed laws, which have been dissected and criticized by, among others, Janet Albrechtsen and the Institute of Public Affairs. My central concern is that, when fundamental assaults on free speech can so readily be enacted by due process, this must challenge the legitimacy of our system.
The conservative Opposition in Canberra may promise to repeal that section of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act under which Andrew Bolt was found guilty of offending certain individuals. But institutional opposition to repeal is likely to be great. And, as we saw in Victoria, Premier Baillieu went back on Liberal Party promises to repeal state laws restricting free speech.
Is there a red line at which such laws become illegitimate and must be defied? Editor Keith Windschuttle has drawn a red line in relation to Finkelstein’s proposed media regulation regime that would apply to both Quadrant print magazine and Quadrant Online. On dictates from the proposed News Media Council, he has declared that:
If his oppressive scheme is ever implemented, we would feel compelled to defend the long tradition of press freedom by engaging in civil disobedience. While ever I am editor, Quadrant would not recognise the News Media Council’s authority, we would not observe its restrictions, and we would not obey its instructions, whatever the price. We hope other publishers will take a similar stand.
Sadly, his is still a lonely voice at this stage. Meek obedience to the “law”, albeit under protest, still seems to be the general response from the major media at this stage.
Unfortunately, conservatives are poorly equipped to deal with a situation that is both incremental and insidious. They will find it difficult to embrace civil disobedience. But if due process is successfully manipulated to assault freedom of opinion, surely a red line has been crossed.
Why should Andrew Bolt be forced to say that for legal reasons he cannot express any opinion on certain matters? What if News Limited had decided to defy the court’s ruling in the Bolt Case? What if station 2GB had decided to defy the ruling from the Australian Communications and Media Authority in relation to comments by Alan Jones on climate change? Would the station have been shut down; would there have been police raids, arrests and jailings?
Sadly, the long retreat from freedom may well continue. The soft totalitarians from the Left are counting on the conservative addiction to due process and law abiding stability and, of course, general apathy. However, I suspect they fear that one day people will wake up and resist and the edifice of political correctness will crumble into dust.
Christopher Carr is a frequent contributor to Quadrant Online